Friday, December 31, 2010

Italy Days 9-10: New Year’s Eve

In the morning, my mother and sister finally were successful in their attempt to visit the Doge's palace, greatly enjoying the original horse sculptures and the views over San Marco, and being appropriately depressed by the prisons across the bridge of sighs.

But we spent most of New Year’s Eve on Murano. As you probably know, Venice is built on islands, most of which have been built upon so much that they meld together. A few notable outliers remain, though, one of which is this famed glass-making island, historically kept apart because of the fire hazards of its industry. It was neat to be away from the main island, to get a sense of Venice being amidst a lagoon, and to see some of the fishing culture that still abounds.

After a quick boat ride over, passing the cemetery island, we stepped off onto an unassuming brick quay and into a world of glass consumerism. The wall shrines had glass Madonnas, the window boxes had glass flowers, the piazzas had glass statues, the churches had glass baptismal fonts. I’m sure most of you have seen Murano or Murano-styled glass objects before (knowingly or unknowingly), and we’d certainly been seeing them hawked around the city since arriving. While clunky glass animals, ugly girlish jewelry, and obvious Chinese rip-offs abounded even on the island itself, it was fairly easy after a bit of adjustment to start to pick out the real quality items from amidst the schlock. The colors bloomed, the twists of abstract objects intrigued with whimsy, the delicacy and exactness of the details astounded my understanding of the craft. A number of small shops had the artists worktables in a corner of the shop, allowing us a glimpse of their handiwork in action. The project that most intrigued me was watching one man hand-blow a series of hollow matched glass beads for a necklace. We also enjoyed putting the contemporary items in historical context by visiting the small but thorough museum of glass at the center of the island. We managed to return to the main islands of Venice without having bought too many trinkets.

We dined at a restaurant recommended by the Lonely Planet, which humorously had an “American” décor theme though thankfully a thoroughly Italian menu. The pizza was mouth-watering, chewy and moist with fresh ricotta, fresh mozzarella, and roasted zucchini. Our second course was a satisfying artichoke risotto and a tender steak sliced over arugula greens. I enjoyed watching the table of oh-so-hip young Venetians behind us tuck into their four-course meal with joy and vim: I like participating in a culture that includes no guilt or body hang-ups for women dining.

As it was New Years Eve, the day had really just begun. Venice is famously a party city, and as soon as the sun went down the celebrations began. Much to my mother’s fright, one of the main forms of public exuberance turned out to be randomly setting off extremely loud firecrackers in the middle of crowded streets. And I mean really, really really ear-ringingly loud with a big flash, dropped surreptitiously right into packed throngs, making people have to scream and run away from it as soon as its initial smoke and fizzle were noticed. It’s a wonder nobody lost an eye, and I’d hate to imagine what the experience would be like for survivors of war.

Not that it was all terrible. Lisa and I left our cowed mother at the hotel and set off for Piazza San Marco (like Venice’s Times Square for the night). In a move that would absolutely never happen in the US, the evening’s party planners, knowing how to please a crowd, were handing out free bottles of bubbly to absolutely everyone there. Though claiming our bottles meant braving a lung-compressing mob of fellow revelers in the densest part of the piazza, my sister and I both successfully snagged a Bellini Canella each, though they sadly only had the peach flavor left by the time we got up to the table. We then put our crowd-threading skills further to the test and wended our way to an absolutely prime fireworks-watching spot right on the edge of the waterfront.

The fireworks themselves were quite pretty, with a dominant theme of white and fizzley. A nice effect was achieved by mirroring each display, with two of every firework going off next to each other. The show seemed more interested in ornament than American-style bravado, lending quite a different feel to it from the fireworks to which I am accustomed. I was also unused to fireworks being set off quite so close to the crowd, and at such a low angle to the ground/water: many arched out like a fan, causing large chunks of burning matter to fizzle fiercely into the water despite many boats dotting the lagoon.

Thankfully, the finale overcame the show’s relative reserve and was appropriately overwhelming. High on the spirit of the crowd, the splash and drama of the fireworks, the moment of the new year, and those bottles of Bellini, Lisa and I decided to race home, as we knew that the tiny walkways and bridges would quickly become impassable from the dispersing throngs. As the last firework fizzled, we took off ducking and speeding through the tight maze, successfully avoiding being blown up by additional random crowd fireworks, dodging into the neighborhood northeast of the piazza, across the Rialto bridge, and successfully to our street, where we were temporarily waylaid by our succumbing to the temptation of one of the ubiquitous vim brule/mulled wine carts (Can we please, pleaes have these at home?).

We proudly brought our mother her own cup of hot spicy wine, sure that she would be sitting huddled terrified by all the explosions, but were astounded to find her sleeping like a baby despite the frequent booms of what sounded like cannons exploding right below our window. I was sure that, given the excitement and the noise, I, too, would never sleep, but apparently was out before my head even hit the pillow.

The next morning (Italy Day 10) we were disappointed to find that no water busses would be stopping at our dock given the holiday, leaving us to have to drag our bags halfway across the city via the aforementioned narrow walkways and bridges, up and down countless steps, and in the process helping a nice lost young German man find his way. Then onto another fast posh train barreling towards one of my favorite places on earth…

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Italy Day 8: Venice and Opera

We woke up in Venice! We could see a tiny bit of the grand canal from one of our windows in our hotel. However, it was ever so slightly smelly when we opened the window as there was a fish market outside, with lots of dying sea life, which made me sad but which Lisa and Ma enjoyed photographing. I should really be a vegetarian again.

While Ma and Lisa went off to go to old churches and palaces that I was uninterested in, I stayed in the hotel to hone my grad school application essays, with nominal success. Then I realized I was supposed to rendezvous with them in like ten minutes at a place quite a ways across the city, prompting an amazing feat of speed map-reading-while-walking. I made it just a few minutes late having gotten only slightly lost. This is really quite impressive, as Venice is quite hazardous to walk through, what with sudden drops into pits of oily water and sharp turns in the 3 ft. wide streets and walls that rise up from nowhere and forehead-bashing arches and unexpected steps and rollercoaster multitudinous bridges, plus all the tourists clogging the walkways. And have you ever seen a map of Venice? It’s like a meth-hopped ant farm got together with a fragmented early DOS maze program. Getting lost is practically a sport there.

We lunched at the Osteria Cravat on a sumptuous spread of Venetian specialties, including a platter of local seafoods, cuttlefish served in its ink over polenta, and fresh spaghetti with a sauce of mashed anchovies and caramelized onions, all with a light and lemony local white wine. Then at a café next to Il Frari (a famous church) we had amazingly delicious coffee, the best yet on the trip by far.

The afternoon was spent gazing at art in churches and the Gallerie de Academia, Venice’s main art museum. The Gallerie boasts a large collection of medieval and renaissance art, which Lisa and my mom appreciated for their art-historical significance and I appreciated for their proliferation of funny grumpy-looking dudes and skeletons and historical scenes of the city and pretty ladies and sparkly bits. Not that I’m unerudite myself, but I can appreciate the art on multiple levels, the simplistic and crass being one of them and that which is most accessible when cold and tired and speed-walking through the cavernous museum. The pieces I most appreciated on a sophisticated level were the architectural renderings of Venetian buildings in the huge paintings by one particular artist (whom Lisa will hopefully remember the name) who not only actually understood perspective but also really gave a good sense of the unique spaces made by the combination of walkways, piazzas, and canals.

As dusk faded, after fortifying ourselves with fresh strudels and pudding-like hot chocolate, we ventured on to what was one of the real highlights of the trip. Thanks to some excellent research and ticket-finding on the part of my sister, we were able to attend a concert at the opera house Teatro La Fenice, one of the most famous theaters in Europe. The current structure is a completely new reproduction of the 18th-C theater, the original having burned to the ground in 1996. The combination of modern acoustical sense with the faithfully-traditional design and décor made for a visually and aurally sumptuous, grand, and intimate performance space, perfect for the musical selections of the evening. It’s a relatively small theater, with only 900 seats, which meant that there was no need for amplification, greatly improving the experience.

Our seats were “listening-only”, i.e. we couldn’t see the stage, seated in the back of an upper box. However, as I quickly learned, despite its grandeur the theater has a very long history of casual audiences, with people standing and leaning out and chatting throughout the performance, which meant we could stand at will and peer down onto the stage.

The concert, directed by Daniel Harding and purposefully devoted to melodrama, bravely began with what is usually reserved for a finale, Dvořák’s 9th symphony in its entirety. I am deeply familiar with the piece, having not only listened to it endlessly, but having performed it more than once (I play French horn). I was prepared to be complacent and dully appreciative, having previously heard it performed by some of the world’s greatest symphonies, anticipating reserving my enthusiasm for the operatic second half. But... but it was magnificent.

A warmth crept up the back of my neck, like fear, as I heard the absolute perfection of their performance. My sister, mother, and I glanced at each other in escalating shock and glee, confirming with one another that we were really hearing the glory we felt we were hearing. The horns were particularly exquisite, and actually made me weep a little with their perfect balance of bombast and yearning and the effortlessness with which they soared the heralding phrases. The Largo section actually broke a woman’s heart (she had a heart attack, and had to be removed from the theater: we were told she was likely going to be fine). I can say without reservation that it was not only the best performance of the piece I have ever heard, it is the best performance I will EVER hear, as it would not be possible to improve upon it.

You’d think that anything following that act would be a disappointment, but of course Venice is the capital city of opera, and Teatro La Fenice its palace, and this concert the annual highlight, so the singing was as good as it gets. Many of the selections were from operas originally written specifically for performance in La Fenice, which didn’t hurt, and all three of the performers (soprano, tenor, and baritone, whose names I will have to add later) were the best of what Italy had to offer. The baritone was a natural comedian as well as a superb vocalist, while the tenor was earnest and romantic. The soprano, of course, stole the show, as she is meant to: her wide dynamic range, pure tone, and nuanced vibrato reminded me of the heights vocal training combined with extreme talent can achieve. Her rendition of O Mio Babbino Caro brought the over-played selection back to relevance, and the toast from La Traviatta had the audience twitching to dance. She was also perfectly Italian, with big hair and dark eyes, natural assets that were fittingly distracting in her strapless gown, and a stage presence that made the deep stage look small and her fellow performers insignificant. There’s a reason “diva” is so closely related to the word for a divine being.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Italy Day 7: Travel to Venice

Before we set off to Venice, we visited the weekly Wednesday market that surrounds the Medici fort in Siena. Crowded tented stalls filled with all of the cheap clothes, practical home goods, and fresh foods it is otherwise impossible to find in the posh city seemed to attract the majority of the city’s populace. Mother became overwhelmed by the press of people, but I delighted in the hubbub and the tantalizing produce and breads.

We made our way first to Florence by bus, which made us all rather seasick with its hell-bent speed and swaying, despite the stunning Tuscan countryside scenery. It’s a good thing Ma didn’t notice the two car wrecks we passed, whose drivers had gone off the edge of the narrow steep roads, or she would have been even more nervous.

While awaiting our train at the Florence station, we enjoyed the offerings of the train station food court, which in typical Italian fashion did not stint on its lavishness. Our meal (at a freaking food court, mind you) consisted of flavorful roasted pork with potatoes and garlic, a saucy beef with mushrooms, a tender and cheesy roasted vegetable lasagna, and mounds of sautéed spinach. Our meal could have been much more lavish, but we were trying to restrain ourselves. If we only had food courts like that at home, travel and shopping would be so much better.

The train to Venice was posh and fast, truly travel in the lap of luxury. In a matter of short hours we arrived in Venice across the causeway tracks, timed perfectly to be just like Katherine Hepburn in Summertime, even with the same seats.

The evening light perfect in that way unique to Venice, echoed somewhat only, in my experience, in Paris and Banares: the light seems heavy, so saturated with honeyed yellows and rosy pinks that it almost drips on the surfaces and sticks to them longer than it should, turning white marbles to glow with interior warmth and making colored painted walls almost 4-dimensional, you can almost feel the atoms buzzing.

It being her first visit to Venice, Mother was suitably stunned upon stepping out of the train station onto its plaza along the edge of the grand canal. The slosh of the waves, the background stench of seaweed and salt mud, the hurried boats and palatial architecture all put on a good show. We hustled ourselves onto a vaparetto (canal bus boat), which conveniently dropped us a block from our pensione (hotel) at the Rialto Markets.

After depositing our bags we walked to San Marco to fully situate our minds in the heart of Venice. While the piazza was disappointingly smothered in scaffolding, construction shields, and stages erected for the holiday festivities, the main buildings held their own, including the domes of the Doge’s palace and the glittery gilded excess of the interior of the basilica. I think it wins for sparkeliest church, which is saying something.

So, about our hotel, Pensione Guerrato. It was built in 1288. As a hostel for crusaders. For real. Crusaders. 1288. Commence politically-incorrect swashbuckling romantic quest daydreams. The interiors had been sadly updated in the baroque period and again in the 1950s, leaving little of the medieval décor other than the wooden beams and worn stone steps. The Murano glass chandeliers and silk/gilt headboards and antique furniture and heat!!! and American-style bathroom were all quite lovely and much appreciated, though. We enjoyed spoiling ourselves, and slept gloriously.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Italy Day 6: the rest of Siena

As it was our last day in Siena, Lisa brought us to the remaining must-see places on her list. Tops was visiting the interior of Palazzo Publico, the building on the edge of Il Campo square that hosts the iconic square tower of the city. Though technically just the city hall, and functioning still as such, it is gorgeously decorated with mosaics and notable frescos. It’s a veritable visual and historical feast in there, all colorful and sparkley, totally belying the plain brick exterior. I most enjoyed getting a glimpse into what life in medieval Siena looked like, as seen in the detailed and ornate frescos on good and bad government. The city looked surprisingly the same architecturally, but in ye olden days it apparently had more serfs, capes, and ladies dancing, and fewer coffee shops: about what I would have expected. Plus the sin in the “bad government” fresco was funny.

We had lunch at Lisa’s local deli, but don’t let that make you think it was simple fare. These Italians, they really really take their lunches seriously, taking 2 hours off every day for a multi-course meal, even if just at the deli. We started with five tiny bruschetta with, respectively, smoked cheese, hot pepper goo, pesto, olive oil, and stewed red cabbage; more ribolita (Tuscan bread soup); Tuscan bean soup; of course more Chianti; and a plate of grilled meats incl. a breaded chicken cutlet, a lamb? meatloaf with interesting spices, and a pork? meatloaf with tomato sauce. It was all meltingly scrumptious. And of course we finished with tiny, intense coffees.

Next on to the Panaramio, the intriguing tall arch initially built to be the front façade of the Duomo cathedral. The current cathedral is what was intended to be the transept of a much larger structure. When the plague and then the Florentines brought low the city in the mid-1300s, construction permanently halted, leaving some glorious columns and arches surrounding an open space that is now a parking lot of sorts. You can still climb up the tiny stairwell within the wall of the intended façade, though, and walk out somewhat dangerously along the top two arches for some of the best views of the city and surrounding countryside. Which we did, somewhat to my mother’s horror. And the sunlight and rooftops and bricks and hills were beautiful.

Across the plaza from the Panoramio is the imposing structure brick structure of Santa Maria Della Scala. The heart of the building was built around 850 CE and functioned as a hostel for pilgrims, an orphanage, and a hospital until the mid-1900s, expanding all the while into its current airy warren. The city is still trying to settle on a use for this huge space, which boasts not only enormous historical significance and antiquity even for Italy, gem box chapels and truly unique well-preserved frescos, and echoey plain former ward rooms, but also enormous maintenance and heating bills. It’s currently serving as a museum, holding the collections of other city art establishments. I especially enjoyed seeing the frescos of medieval medical practices in all their gory glory, and appreciating the perfect evening light coming through the ancient windows.

Dinner was another feast, this time featuring crepes filled with paste made from boiled salted codfish. Lisa had raved about it so much I was sure the real thing couldn’t stand up to her praise, especially since it sounded so icky, but indeed I wished I could have eaten six more.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Italy Day 5: Day of Rest

Today was a day to recover and catch up from the previous busy days. After sleeping in, I caught up writing these blog posts, sorting through pictures, and working on my grad school application essays while Lisa went to the bank and did other such errands, and Ma tagged along with her. They also went to visit some goats.

We met up with Miriam, Lisa’s boss, at Osteria El Gato, a small restaurant near their school. We ate more delicious food, in the many-hours-long multi-course-with-wine Italian lunch tradition. Miriam is wonderful, warm and intelligent and high-spirited: I wished we could have lunched for even longer to enjoy her company more. Some of our truly lively topics of conversation over the meal included her family’s history (fascinating romantic saga), the effect of facism and WWII on Italy, goats, the insulating techniques of potato barns, and her parent’s pellet furnace. (If you know me, you can see why I liked her.)

After lunch we went with Lisa to her office, where she did some work and arranged for our onward train tickets, I did more photo editing, Ma read a book on the history of the city, and we were able to chat online with Petra in Haiti. On our way home we wandered into some of the kitschy tourist shops, featuring wares such as silk scarves with the neighborhood crests, painted ceramic plates, painted ceramic everything-under-the-sun, highly decorative paper goods, and various tacky crap. We fortified ourselves with an appetizer of pizza slices, then went grocery shopping, trudged back to the apartment for dinner (gnocchi with amazing mystery sauce and sautéed brussel sprouts with pistachio pudding for dessert), and an early night to bed.

Photos from this day are by my mother: you can see where I get some of my photographic habits from! :)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Italy Day 4: Day after Christmas

We finally awoke to sunshine! The apartment and the city out the window were practically unrecognizable from the gloom to which we had become accustomed. The golden glow beckoned us such that we wolfed down our breakfast (scrambled eggs with bursting sautéed cherry tomatoes and grated fresh parmesan cheese and whole-grain toast with local cherry jam) so we could rush outside before the clouds returned.

It was another day of mostly just wandering around the city again. The views we could catch out over the Tuscan countryside were all the more arresting, much greener greens even than before, and the stucco and terra cotta houses practically glowed in the sunshine. Our first stop of the day was the Medici fortress on the outskirts of town, built essentially as bragging rights after the final decisive victory of Florence over Siena. It is large and brick and empty and in very good repair, now essentially a walled public park with great views from the high walls back onto the old city and surrounds.

Of course it was snack time next, so off to Nanini’s coffee shop for a rice pastry, which we dutifully ate sitting in the sun in Il Campo (the main plaza) like good tourists. Our next stop, a farm in a green valley within the old city walls, was sadly closed, so no Italian mountain goats for us.

Instead we briskly strode through the Torre contrada / ghetto neighborhood toward the church of S. Clemente in S. Maria del Servi from which Lisa promised great views. Of course, as soon as we got there, the sun disappeared. So we just enjoyed the church itself, which was more effectively decorated and seemed more cozy than the other giant churches of the city. This one had a great mosaic over an exterior side door in which the skin of all the figures had turned green, probably something to do with the ancient paint’s pigments. Inside were two remarkably well-preserved mummies of 1300s saints, one of which looked disturbingly like me, and some very famous frescoes by the Lorenzetti brothers, which we ignored.

Lisa took us next to the grounds of the former city psychiatric hospital, now part of the University, and the nearby Porto Romana (Roman gate), very well-preserved with its whole gatehouse and gate tower and everything still intact. It was funny to see cars zooming through the gatehouse, since the road still enters the city there. Sitting in an arrow slit nook, we took a quick repast of Lisa’s favorite Italian beverage, a packaged iced tea with lemon and rosewater added.

Then commenced an endless nearly-futile search for open restaurant. During our search we kept our spirits up by going via the alley of potted plants of the day before, admiring the whimsical figures topping the hundreds of iron horse securing rings along the streets, and noting the dangerous toilet balconies mounted on the outside of the high walls. Unfortunately, all the swift walking from today and the past few days has brought about shinsplints in my legs, so I was miserably hobbling along the later streets.

After searching through about five neighborhoods we finally found an open restaurant, which was really quite delightful entirely in addition to it being warm, having chairs, and having food. Our table was in a very low arched brick nook that was either an old wine cellar or tunnel or oven or just a room for really small people. We ate more delicious food.

After checking email etc at Lisa’s freezing cold office, we felt justified in further indulging with intense hot chocolate, mine with milk and Lisa’s without milk, from a specialty sorbet-and-chocolate shop called Grom. My mother insanely got sorbet (it was freezing out!), a delicious Mandarin orange flavor.

Then on to the Teatro Dei Rozzi for an early-evening concert featuring the Unione Corale Senese (the Sienese Choralle), soprano Cristina Ferri and tenor Altero Mensi, and directed by Francesca Lazzeroni (who also sang a few of the soprano solos). The theater itself was interesting, small and set up in a very old mostly-circular terraced style. I’d call it over-decorated, though Ma says it was tasteful and appropriate for what it is, and Lisa says there’s no such thing as over-decorated, especially since they were singing Madame Butterfly. We got to sit in a box seat, since it was a free concert with open seating and we were near the front of the line: I felt very posh. The program was like Italian Opera’s Greatest Hits, with short selections from Verdi, Verdi, Donizetti, Verdi, Verdi, Cajkovskij, Puccini, Puccini, Puccini, (intermission), Puccini, Puccini, Puccini, Leoncavallo, Mascagni, Mascagni, and an unbilled encore sing-along. The crowd seemed to know all the pieces by heart, though only a few sounded vaguely familiar to me. The soloists were very, very, very stereotypically Italian: confident, highly dramatic, strident, loud, endearing, and quite talented. The youngish Ms. Ferri was lovely enough with her honest delight in her own performance and perfectly tailored modern gauzy dress to mostly excuse her over-use of vibrato, while Mr. Mensi was as sweet and dignified as his white hair and paunch would lead one to suspect. We walked/hobbled home singing the main melodic phrase of the last piece.

Dinner back at the apartment was leftovers of the previous meals plus more almond cookies, and more pecarino cheese with honey drizzled over it, and a Kinder egg (with purple bouncy toy). The three of us cozied up on the couch and sang all the Christmas carols we could think of, occasionally sung in the mode of monkeys and/or fish, which made me laugh so hard I had real trouble breathing. The later songs I accompanied on guitar, making my fingers ask what I was doing to them (as I haven’t played in years). Then sleep.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Italy Day 3: Christmas Day

We awoke on Christmas morning to another rainy day. Rather than lounge about in our pjs, we hustled off to the crypt of the other giant cathedral-ish building in town, the Basilica of St. Dominico, built in 1226. This church has always seemed to me very threatening and dangerous and vaguely unpleasant, perhaps because its gargantuan brick hulk squats precariously on a sandstone bluff on the edge of the old city; perhaps because of its unsurpassed collection of atrocious art, from simultaneously insipid and violent pastel frescos to horrid and yet engaging dark modern stained glass to positively treacherous sharp cast metal doors; perhaps because of the sad state of disrepair of the nave; or perhaps because of the displayed thumb and shrunken head of the local insane St. Catherine. Yeah, it’s probably the head.

Compared to the nave, the 1300s crypt where the Christmas morning service was held, locally called “the Church Down Under”, was positively cozy. Even the locals don’t want to go to mass in the giant, cold and freaky church above. We only stayed for the first bit of the mass, driven out by the combination of the cold, the shockingly out-of-tune organ, and my losing battle with not snickering at the sermon, which featured the phrases “pico Jesu bambino” (little baby Jesus) and “nostro piccolo dio” (our tiny God) and the like so often that Talladega Nights was too much in the forefront of my mind. And, in case you didn’t know, we’re not Catholic anyways, so all these services were getting to me.

As an alternative to worship, we visited another ancient fountain (of which Lisa has an inexhaustible knowledge) which all amaze me with their proof of the continued functionality of the ancient underground aqueduct mazes. And of course we took a ridiculously circuitous route back to the apartment that just had to necessitate the use of the outdoor escalators (the hill was so steep even the Sienese didn’t want to walk up it) and through some unmodernized neighborhoods. To my family’s chagrin, I became temporarily obsessed with staring at doorknobs and the intersections of the ‘ground’ and doorframes. We did eventually make it home for lunch (pasta with tomato and hare ragut, and grilled zucchini).

With bellies full, we admired (or rather, lovingly snickered at) the ‘glorious’ Christmas tree Lisa had so nicely put together from the dollar store, and enjoyed opening our presents to one another: a chocolate each (notably, Kinder eggs) with bonus bookmarks for me and Ma, and a shared package of coconut candies. Of course, our main present to all of us was getting to spend our Christmas together, which we greatly appreciated with extra hugs.

After praising the superiority of European confections and with bellies even more full, we took a constitutional in the drizzle. In keeping with the day, we went to another ancient fountain (ironically called the Fonte Nuova, which was under repair), a plain neighborhood church (Oratorio di S. Rocco, which was closed), an ornate neighborhood church (the baroque white-marble-facaded S. Maria di Provenzano, which was also closed), and the Basilica di St. Francesco (which was open!). This church, like the morning’s, was huge and empty and sadly unlovely and in declining repair, but less threateningly so. Its great claim to fame is a miracle of a box of 400-year-old not-rotten communion crackers (I do not jest). It had less horrible art but also less lighting than S. Domenico’s, and was painted to look stripey like the Duomo.

Our intrepid guide (Lisa) brought us from there on a steep and circuitous route through some then-as-yet-unexplored-by-us neighborhoods and over to a particularly odd alley/street in the southeastern section of the city, Via Degli Orefici, with especially narrow twistiness, a proliferation of potted plants, original terra cotta drain pipes, and a dead end.

We, notably I, required fueling before returning home, and so stopped off at the vaguely-American bookstore-cum-coffee shop to rest our feet and consume not only the required cappuccinos but also a tart thing with mulberries and red currants on it. Rejuvenated, we made it back across the city to enjoy another lovely meal by Chef Lisa, this time grilled radicchio with ribolita (Tuscan bread soup, i.e. bean soup with a lot of stale bread turned to mush in it, much much tastier than you’d think). A lazy evening watching a documentary on the city’s famous annual horse race, then sleep.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Haiti: Wedding

Two days before Christmas Eve, I attended a wedding. The bride is the head nurse at Fondasa Haiti, one of ESF’s partner agencies.

The wedding was in almost all regards exactly like a standard American Christian wedding. Even the beauty parlor where we went beforehand to so my boss could have her hair straightened and curled was eerily similar to any Black American beauty salon in the States (I suspected, she confirmed). There were, however, a few striking cultural differences. First, I was surprised by the timing. The invitation said 4:00. Though we were running late and arrived at 4:20, we were the first guests. More striking than that, the lack of guests did not stop the ceremony from beginning about five minutes later when the limousine carrying the bridal party arrived: the music started, and the bridesmaids paced down the aisle of the virtually empty church! The guests arrived over the course of the next hour or so, such that the ceremony concluded to a full house. I assume it’s to make up for the lack of initial audience that the reception began with a complete repetition of the wedding procession.

Second, people not only took pictures throughout the ceremony, but in fact got up out of their seats to crowd around the happy couple at the front of the church, snapping close-ups of them saying their vows, exchanging rings, etc. At times the participants were completely obscured by the profusion of waving cameras and mobile phones. Their special moment is very well documented indeed.

It was a lovely wedding. Selfishly, I enjoyed having an excuse to wear something other than scrubs. I also appreciated the opportunity that the wedding afforded to reflect on the kind of arresting juxtapositions that you only find in circumstances such as those in Port-Au-Prince today:

• The experience of being all dressed up in dainty gold high-heeled sandals and a silk sundress, picking my way over concrete rubble to climb into a dented and much-abused four-wheel drive;

• The image of the somewhat worse-for-wear limousine crawling through the crowded and narrow third-world street, and coming to a stop in front of the church opposite the sagging, folded concrete slabs of a house that remains as it was when it collapsed in the earthquake almost exactly a year ago;

• The view of a teenage boy and his kid sister, dressed respectively in an immaculate formal suite and a pristine white first-communion dress complete with white floral headdress and veil, stepping carefully around the muddy drainage ditch in the otherwise dusty road, making their way past piles of rubble and a herd of smelly marauding goats;

The reception was held in a nice hotel in a wealthier residential neighborhood. The houses were large, with gardens and green trees, and surrounded by high cement walls with iron gates. Despite the fact that most of the houses in this neighborhood appeared intact, the vast majority of them seemed uninhabited. The darkened windows by themselves didn’t necessarily imply an empty house, since here even large and fancy houses usually lack electricity. A stronger clue was the presence of tents in the front yard, the driveway, or the street in front of the gate. Buildings that look sound are not necessarily so, and my colleagues tell me of people with sound houses who are nevertheless too scared and traumatized to live in them.

(Apologies, these pictures are not up to our usual standard: the next batch will be better)

Italy Day 2: Christmas Eve

We started the day on a decadent note by having half a Panettone for breakfast. If you are not familiar with the traditional Italian puffy Christmas fruit cake and its bulbous boxes, picture a squat cylinder with an orb top for the shape, the color of caramel or dark toast. Its consistency is a combination of slightly stale Italian bread and a croissant, airy and fun to pull apart with the fingers but not very layered. Its flavor is dominated by the scattered embedded pieces of citron (candied orange, lemon, and lime peel).

Rather than visit many tourist destinations, we made the city itself our destination of the day, wandering the streets and looking at the streets themselves and the walls surrounding them. Siena is incredibly old, settled at least as far back as the Etruscans of 700 BC (i.e. pre-Roman), with bits of their stonemasonry still in evidence. Most of the existing buildings are from more around the 12-1300s, with some 1500s thrown in. Because Florence dominated economically and politically from 1348 on (thanks to Siena being decimated by the plague and being hopeless in battle), Siena, like York in England, didn’t have the money to keep up with the architectural times, and therefore remains an unsurpassed time capsule of medieval architecture.

Perched on a small series of hill ridges creased with steep valleys, tiny Siena (dense population steady at 60,000 for the last 1000 years) is dominated by brick and stone just the color your Crayola upbringing would suggest. Its antiquity and the extremely steep topography thwarts any relation to modern city planning, tending more towards a street map like a bowl of spaghetti or the efforts of a drunk maze designer. The streets have about three possible widths: barely wide enough to squeeze two Fiats past each other (which they drive buses down), barely wide enough for one Fiat and a Vespa to share, or too narrow or steep for any Fiats and therefore devolving into a staircase. To say this city isn’t accessible to the physically handicapped is a gross understatement. I particularly enjoyed the errant angles and slopes of the streets, and the frequency with which the buildings on either side of the street actually touched at the top or leaned into one another with narrow arches, creating frames for the views beyond.

My mother and I particularly enjoyed the walls of the buildings (as well as the old city walls) because of the way they had been patched up and had windows and doors added and filled in and reinforced and painted and broken etc. so many times over their existences. It brought strongly to mind the philosophical question of identity and physical continuity, i.e. if over time you replace all the parts of a thing, is it still the same thing as the original thing? Any answer would still have these walls being genuinely old, though, since most of the repairs etc were themselves ancient.

We covered a fair bit of the city in our wanderings, made easier by my sister’s familiarity with its layout, allowing us to stride blindly after her. When Petra and I visited Siena briefly years ago, we spent most of our time lost and consulting our map. This time, we saw the Piazza Gramsci at which we arrived and the Porta Camollia near which we are staying, the gargantuan and useless Medici fort, the length of the Via Di Camollia/Montanni/di Sopra/di Citta (as if the map weren’t confusing enough, the streets change names every few blocks), the grand Il Campo plaza (generally agreed to be the best plaza in all of Italy and recognizable from such recent films as James Bond Quantum of Solace and the red cloak scene from that Twilight movie), some of the ancient Jewish ghetto, the environs of the University, the oldest spot in the city (Castel Vecchio which is more like a courtyard with a garden-shack of a stone tower), and every tiny slanting street in between.

My sister Lisa made sure to treat us to coffees at a tiny local café as soon as possible. We all had café macchiato, which was just as strong and tiny and generally Italian as one could wish. Ma didn’t like it at all, made amazingly funny distressed faces, and had a hard time finishing her thimbleful. As she is of the coffee sipping school, I think she rather generally missed the point of it. We will make a second attempt to encourage her Italian coffee appreciation another day.

It was a good day for coffee as it was very rainy at first and remained grey and drizzly rest of the day, though not too cold. Outside stayed a fairly consistent 48 degrees all day. Thanks to the rain, the matte light and shiny streets and profusion of umbrellas made for some great photographic conditions.

We of course took lots of pictures: as we only brought the one camera between us, Ma and I had a back-and-forth photo commentary going all day, improving upon one another’s compositions. It’s a very challenging city to photograph in, though. The composition itself is difficult, not only because of the mental overload of such a visually rich environment, but since the views are very narrow and cropped, it’s nearly always hard to either get far enough away or close enough to whatever the focal point of the frame is. More difficult is the lighting, which has extremes of dark and light in almost every possible frame. A majority of the images we snapped this first day didn’t turn out as we had hoped.

Over lunch we enjoyed a truly grand sweeping vista south from the edge of the old city’s mesa. I certainly didn’t expect turning left from a cramped street through a stone doorway past the University would lead us to a wide green field with olive trees and benches, a modern park built above a recent parking garage but in keeping with what would have been the grounds of an old nunnery. Our food was tasty crunchy hot two-euro things called ciacino like pizza ham and cheese sandwiches.

As a bit of a rest, we visited Lisa’s school. Lisa is working with the head of the Siena School of Liberal Arts and the Getty family to found a new art school, called the Siena Art Institute. They will have art classes as well as artists in residence, workshops, community programs, and more. It will all very high-caliber stuff with a decidedly international bent: English will be the main language of the Institute. They already have lovely premises in an airy, light-filled building near the cathedral in one of the highest and oldest parts of the city. Many of the rooftop and vista pictures you’ll see are from their windows.

To increase the day’s surreal quotient, Babo Natale (i.e. Santa) arrived in one of the city’s ancient plazas via a covered wagon drawn by some pint-sized wet and shaggy draft horses. A ragtag band dressed in Santa-inspired garb played carols lugubriously while children pranced and Santa was much photographed with the tykes and handed out plastic crap toys. The adults all delighted in doffing sparkly red caps, even bedecking the ever-patient horses. Then it was clearly time for more coffee. Ma had tea this time. I had a nearly-perfect cappuccino.

Dinner this night was back at the apartment, light nibbles perched around the tiny flowery kitchen table. Lisa whipped up a delectable appetizer of fresh organic ricotta drizzled with local fresh-pressed olive oil and salt and ground black pepper. Then bread (one puffy and one cracker-like with rosemary) with cheese (soft and hard pecorino) with a chestnut honey and a tomato and pumpkin flower tapenade, accompanied by a local adventurously-non-chianti red from the local Monte Chiaro. For dessert we munched on some hard biscuits (i.e. cookies, related to British digestives, vaguely like graham crackers) called Grancereale, in four varieties: original, crunchy, fruited, and chocolate. My favorites were the crunchy, which lived up to its name and was very buttery, and the chocolate, which was actually rather nutty.

But no, that was not the end of the day, not with my sister at the helm. She sings regularly with a local chorus, which was performing as the choir at the Christmas Eve mass at San Giuseppe’s, the Church of the Onda (i.e. Wave) Contrada, now tucked amongst other brick rambles on a hillside on the south edge of the old city. As they needed more altos, I joined as a ringer with no rehearsal, which was fine because they were very haphazard themselves and it was all Christmas music anyways. I was excited to get to enter the church by an iron-gated courtyard and barred side door rather than the public front door entrance. After making my way up a very worn steep stone staircase about as wide as my hips and high as my shoulders and thanking my blessed stars I wasn’t proportioned like the average American, I joined the cantada in the organ loft, a frighteningly creaky ancient wooden balcony about the size of two twin beds on which about twenty people and the ancient organ were crammed. It gave us a great view from which to see the colorful ornate gilded and frescoed nave and apse of the small sanctuary, and to watch the congregation freely ignore the priest’s long, dynamic, rambling sermon (in Italian so I couldn’t understand a word). Dolphins, light blue, and clouds, and gold were the dominant decorative features, and “bellissimo” was the most common recognizable word. We sang admirably. They gave us each a darling clutch bouquet with pink roses and fluffy greens and a sparkly silver thing in thanks: my inner six-year-old-girl/diva was thrilled.

Though it was already past 11pm, we all trekked from there up to the city’s cathedral, Il Duomo, an old ornate stripey stone thing from the 1200s plunked on a plaza high on one of the hilltops. For the holidays they had uncovered some of the delicate floor murals, which was a treat, and had created not only a giant crèche of incredible levels of tackiness, but had a veritable forest/mountain of poinsettias adding some color to the general zebra/op art/moiré décor. Ma and Lisa stayed for the cultural experience of the endless midnight mass, but I bowed out in favor of sleep.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Italy Day 1: Arrival in Siena

Just to confuse you all, while Petra is currently in Haiti, I (Erika) am in Italy visiting my sister Lisa.

After a 2-day delay thanks to snow storms in Europe, and a rather yucky long flight on an old Delta plane with inedible food and unwatchable movie screens, my mother and I flew into Rome. We made a swift and heroic trip across Rome on public transit, successfully purchased tickets and found the right track twice, and proudly took a bus from the Rome station to Siena.

This of course meant we got to drive through the Tuscan countryside. Notable sites included hilltop and cliff-clinging towns, green green harvested fields, lots of rain, sheep, umbrella trees and tall pointy trees, crumbly stone and brick buildings, geometric vineyards, and very rolling hills.

By mid-afternoon we had arrived safely in the center of Siena, where my twin sister Lisa greeted us. We spent the rest of the afternoon dragging our bags up and down the very steep hills of the city, first to Lisa’s apartment, which was modern and moldy and cold, then to Lisa’s friend’s apartment. We are staying at her friend’s place since he’s away visiting relatives, and because his place is clean and warmer and more spacious, has a view from the back garden directly onto the old city walls, and is conveniently right by the Porto Camomille, one of the main gates of the old city.

Warmer is a relative term, though: I am so unimpressed by Italian building standards, tending as they do towards making houses as miserably cold and damp and unheatable as possible, with incredibly high ceilings and huge plate windows and damp plaster walls and solid marble floors. It is consistently colder inside than out. I suppose that’s nice in the summer, but not now. I am incurably cold.

As we were too wiped by travel to cook, we had dinner at a family-style restaurant Lisa frequents, named Fonte Giusta. We ate some truly amazing food. And then off to blissful, long-awaited sleep.

hello from Haiti

It’s the end of my fifth day in Haiti, and so far everything is going well. I spent the first full day working in the pharmacy end of a mobile clinic in Cinnieas, a tent city of 18,000 in the suburbs of Port-Au-Prince. Beyond a variety of coughs, colds, psycho-social conditions related to stress and trauma, and the ever-present malnutrition, the main ailments are worms, vaginal yeast infections, and UTIs. Given the atrocious sanitation infrastructure, this is hardly surprising. We treated about 200 people and went through what felt like pounds of amoxicillin, mebendazole, and anti-fungal creams. It’s wonderful to make such a direct and immediate positive impact on people. At the same time, it’s infuriating that so many people are suffering unecessarily from conditions that are so easy not only to treat, but to prevent.

The second day, I spent a lot of time in a four-wheel drive truck bouncing from one end of the city to the other attending meetings and collecting a donation of medicines from Americares at their airport warehouse. The remaining days have been variations on the first two. The traffic combined with the poor roads exponentially increases the amount of time it takes to run simple errands, as do breakdowns in infrastructure (Gas, for example, are in short supply: it took visiting 12 or 13 gas stations over two days to find a place to fill the truck!). Consequently, we get up at 5:30-6:00 AM every day in order to allow enough time for mishaps and delays. I am keeping my journal consistently, but each day is a bit incomplete because I've fallen asleep with pencil in hand every night so far!

Haiti is a beautiful country. I love the weather, and the stars at night are absolutely clear and lovely. The food is excellent: lots of rice and beans and thick stews of meat and vegetables. The people have been nothing but lovely, warm, and generous. I'm having an intense experience, but so far it's good. Tomorrow we will throw a Christmas party for the orphans in nearby Camp Toto, with food, singing, games, and a few gifts: namely, blankets for the cool nights. From the tent city next door, I can hear strands of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing," in Creole.

My internet connection is to slow to upload photos, but I will start posting as soon as I return. In the meantime, my Facebook profile has a link to a friend’s album. He has just returned from working here in Haiti with ESF, and we overlapped for a few days. More photos coming soon.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Petra's going to Haiti!

Exciting news! I (Petra) will be volunteering in Haiti over the holidays with Explorers Sans Frontiers. I’m excited both about the good work I’ll be able to help do, and with what an amazing opportunity this internship provides for me.

Starting tomorrow, the work I’ll be doing in Port Au Prince will be twofold: Firstly, I’ll be assisting at a mobile medical clinic, observing and acting as an extra set of hands. The health concerns are huge, and they need all the help they can get to assist and educate the populace. I’m grateful to be able to help people in such immediate need. Secondly, I’ll be serving as an institutional consultant, applying my experiences from World Vision to streamline their administrative practices and help set up an office base to help make their work more efficient and effective. As a small and new organization, I hope that my input will make a big difference for ESF and, through them, for Haitian people into the future.

This is such a great opportunity for me for a number of reasons: in order to advance my international affairs career, experience in multiple regions is a huge bonus, as is multiple language environments. My previous experience has been in the development side of international work, so having experience with the disaster relief / humanitarian aid / medical side of things will be invaluable. The very small grassroots structure of ESF is a useful organizational contrast to the enormity of World Vision. And in the interests of being closer to most of my family and friends, I’m exploring working in the closest place to the US where great need (i.e. abject poverty) exists.

It should be quite the adventure. I’m somewhat daunted and very much excited. Check back here starting Dec. 20th or so for updates from the road, though if you don't hear from me don't worry: I'll be very busy. I'll tell you all about it as soon as I can.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Happy Holidays 2010!

I think it’s been about three years since our last holiday letter, so we have a bit of ground to cover! If I recall correctly, we left of at Christmas 2007, having just returned from volunteering in New Orleans for the fall.

First thing in 2008, we moved to Melbourne, Australia. Erika attended the University of Melbourne for a postgraduate degree in Philosophy, focusing on environmental ethics. She loved her job there, teaching and tutoring students in the Philosophy of Biology. Petra worked for World Vision Australia, a Christian international development and humanitarian aid organization, and not only loved her work but made some great friends amongst her colleagues.

We both enjoyed being near Petra’s Aussie relatives, and spent most of our social time with cousins. We had fun taking short trips to the Dandenong mountain ranges east of the city with their towering mountain ash trees and giant fern trees and elusive lyre birds; the Great Ocean Road southeast of the city with its tiny fishing towns and glorious cliffs; a big trip up north to Queensland with Petra’s parents where we basked in the tropical splendor and snorkeled amazedly amidst the teeming life of the Great Barrier Reef; and a few beautiful weeks in New Zealand where Erika’s sister and mom met us for hiking. The wonderful people around us in Oz, the fascinating and beautiful natural world of Australia, the amazingly humane standards of living there, and its mild weather combined to make a truly great year. We look forward to returning to Australia in a few years’ time.

Through her work at World Vision, Petra was offered a position dually with World Vision Thailand and the Australian version of the Peace Corps. So, first thing in 2009, we moved to Bangkok. Petra’s job was in Anti-human-trafficking: she mainly led workshops training staff in the small local offices around rural Thailand and Cambodia about how to integrate anti-trafficking goals into their existing programs. As part of this work, she not only learned Thai very well and got to travel around the Mekong region regularly, but also fell in love with Monitoring and Evaluation, the nerdy quality assurance side of NGO management. Human trafficking is of course a heartbreaking problem, and Petra struggled to keep her optimism in the face of the extremes of human suffering.

Erika spent the year volunteering as a children’s and adult’s English and Music teacher at a UNHCR refugee center in the center of Bankgok. The refugees came from not only Thailand’s neighboring countries, but also places of strife like Somalia, the Congo, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Iraq. The cultural, religious, and linguistic mishmash combined with their broad span of life histories (subsistence farmers to elite politicians) made the center the most truly diverse community we had ever experienced. This diversity, while usually delightful, often made teaching a challenge. Additionally, the center was under-resourced and went through a number of major staff changes throughout the year, leading to significant management and oversight gaps. With the help of Petra, ex-patriot friends, and volunteers from the refugee community, Erika took on a number of extra satisfying projects, including renovating, cleaning, and painting the derelict classrooms and public spaces of the center.

Living in Thailand was generally fascinating, surprising, and tiring. We loved the food (Petra LOVED the fruit, Erika the curries and soups), the architecture, the Buddhist animist religious environment, the playfulness of the Thai people, and the many dear friends we made. In addition to Petra’s regular work trips, we also vacationed in Chiang Mai, an ancient walled city in the northern mountains, where we meditated in temples, participated in the annual water festival, enjoyed the Hmong handicrafts, mountain-biked, rode elephants, and went rafting; in the islands in the Gulf of Thailand, where we slept in hammocks strung between trees on the beach, ate lots of spicy fish, and where Erika fell dangerously in love with scuba diving; in the Siam Reap area of Cambodia, where we gloried in the Ankor Wat temples and pretended to be Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider, laughed at monkeys, and chatted with the children; and in Bangkok itself, where we shopped in the markets, explored the rivers and canals, admired the palaces and temples, and retreated to the underdeveloped neighborhoods of leafy banana forests and stilt-houses. Of course, we miss all of this now.

It wasn’t all glorious, though. It was really, really sweatily hot all the time (which Petra loved). Our workplaces and the violent political turmoil tested our mettle and morals. We both became ill on a very regular basis, from bad food, bad water, and insect-borne illnesses. Having to grapple against extortion and corruption daily became infuriating. The crowdedness and pollution and infrastructural danger (bare wires, kamikaze buses, etc.) of Bangkok were often very uncomfortable, as was missing our favorite foods (dairy products, bread, etc.). And of course we missed our friends and family from the US and Australia.

A convergence of Petra’s contract ending and her desiring to try for her Masters as well as an especially violent attempted coup in Bangkok led us to move back to the USA in the spring of this year. For the spring and summer, we bounced around visiting family and friends while Petra finished her grad school applications, studied up on Economics and math, and Erika temped and applied for jobs. We got outside a bit for canoeing and hikes and the like, but not nearly as much as we'd wish.

In August we moved into our new apartment on the Upper West Side of New York City, and soon thereafter Petra started her Masters in International Affairs at Columbia University. Since then, Petra’s been studying like crazy, while Erika’s continued temping and applying for jobs. (If you know of any great jobs in international human rights or environmental NGOs in NYC, let Erika know!)

We've enjoyed having a number of visitors this fall, especially the long stay of Petra's cousin Matt from Australia, whom we wished would never leave. Let us know if any of you are planning on being in the city, we'd love to see you!

In a few weeks’ time, over the holidays, Petra will be volunteering in Haiti, while Erika will visit her twin sister’s new home in Italy. More information on these trips will be available on this blog as we travel.

We hope you and yours are well. Wishing you all the blessings of the season.
-Erika and Petra